Forum - October 2015 - Military Sci-Fi (Starship Troopers, Forever War, Old Man's War)

Overview > OOC > Book Club > October 2015 - Military Sci-Fi (Starship Troopers, Forever War, Old Man's War)

Carole made the mistake of asking for classic sci-fi recommendations which lead to a long conversation ending in this, the XF Book Club.

For our first, uhm, session, we will be reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Haldeman's Forever War, and Scalzi's Old Man's War. You have a month or so to find and read the books.

Next time we can read books with horses.

Posted by Tez (administrator) on 22 September 2015 at 20:55.

Starship Troopers (1959), Forever War (1974), Old Man’s War (2005). Three military sci-fi novels, each separated from the next by at least fifteen years, and by a different attitude toward war or, at least, the tonal structure of stories about war.

Starship Troopers is the first Heinlein novel I ever actually finished. I first tried to read Heinlein, see, as a teenager. I picked up Mark of the Beast, and after a skim of two pages left me with a billion or so mentions of pert nipples, I decided Heinlein was a nope. This last year, I saw Verhoeven’s critical, satirical version of Starship Troopers, and Predestination, a rather direct interpretation of All You Zombies. Predestination was fascinating, anchored by this spectacular, troubled, hopeful, arrogant, resentful performance by Sarah Snook, but it was full of the kind of staggering misogyny that, from a distance, I’ve tended to associate with sci fi of a certain era. I’m not sure Starship Troopers was the best Heinlein to read first, honestly. I understand he was a complicated guy and a complicated writer, at least as progressive for his time as he was of it (and/or reactionary to it), and this progressive bit does show up in our hero being Filipino, rather than, typically, white (and I believe Forever War and Old Man’s War star white guys by default). Heck, even the movie stars a white guy.

Starship Troopers otherwise, I don’t know. It’s a fun read, more philosophical debate with the reader than a war story. We watch Rico consume more and more military ethics throughout the book, but he exists as a student for our benefit. He is our eyes and ears, the guy who sits at a fictional desk and absorbs fictional lectures. We don’t really see him embody these ethics, just parrot them while he points to the real heroes, present and past. Maybe those real heroes could be us, someday.

The philosophy presented: Citizenship should be based on military service, and only military service prepares a man for the self-sacrifice (the subordination of self to a greater good) necessary to rule without grasping ambition. Only military service instills the discipline and the will to submit to and serve authority, uncomplaining. And it must be military service, because the true citizens of the world must be able to suppress delinquency and stave off external threats, and the only reasonable means to do that is force and the threat of force. We’re in this classroom learning our propaganda, but propaganda only works on the right kind of people, see, the kind of people already willing to sacrifice parts of themselves.

You have to keep an eye on those that won’t.

Anyway, as a philosophical exercise . . . . It’s one thing to posit that “if we have a gigantic army, we can get our way” (in and of itself not necessary true) and another to posit that “because we have a gigantic army, we should get our way, because our way is right.” Well, the latter’s common enough! Pacifists for at least 150 years have muttered about the “might makes right” principle, and the principle itself is far, far older than that. But to actually believe that the state having the right to violence and the power to enact it makes the state’s will moral, or, at least, moral enough for a good, stable society . . . this is naïve. I don’t know how else to put it. To posit that serving in the military means you have some aspect of you that can better understand and therefore vote for the greater good is naïve. To have checks against crime that come down to “We’ll put the most aggressive people under our authority, they’ll accept it, maybe, but if they do, they’ll have an outlet and we’ll have fewer criminals. If they don’t, we’ll flog ‘em or execute them if it becomes necessary” . . . well, you get the theme.

“Naïve” in itself isn’t a terrific criticism, though, so let me break down why it’s naive. Easy example. Starship Troopers lays juvenile delinquency at the feet of soft parents. Kid always gets his way, figures he’ll always get his way, just like mum and dad always said. He goes out and does crimes ‘cause he wasn’t ever taught to submit to authority. He never had any authority in his life.

Well, in real life, permissive parenting is one parenting style that can contribute to juvenile delinquency . . . along with authoritarian parenting, and/or, you know, whipping the kids. Other contributing factors include poverty, peer influence, conduct disorders, underperformance in school, etc., or, perhaps, being male and adolescent in certain cultures, and there’s plenty of criticism that this list is very reductive when compared to complex human behavior. (“Conduct disorders” in particular are so broad that they more or less apply to “kids who break the rules a lot”.)

In any case, Starship Troopers attributes juvenile delinquency to a child’s personal selfishness due to parental permissiveness. The book attributes all the ills of society to personal selfishness, but, you know, not in a Commie way or anything. If we’d just shut up, stop wanting stuff like comfort and not to die, if we just ducked our heads and took our orders and our licks from our dad, our superior officer, our government, it’d be to the strengthening of the human race, and ultimately, that’s all that matters. A population compliant enough to fight wars of expansion or, if they are not personally fighting, to support wars of expansion and honor their soldiers as they should be honored . . . this is all that matters.

I don’t know how much of this Heinlein personally believed. He was in the Navy, although he never saw combat. This kind of blind absorption of whatever-your-superior-says, this denial of personal ambition or interest, I don’t know how much this is reflected in his other works. As an exploration and celebration of an authoritarian society, it reflects the reductiveness of the authoritarian; doubt is a block to be overcome, death is a griefless coda, the signature to a heroic life, Rico himself barely seems to have a psychology. As is often the case in ideological novels, objections are given only to people we are meant to dismiss as fools, or a learning fool like Rico. Superiors are allowed to make mistakes in the background, but to question them is tantamount to raising your fists to the sky and denouncing God.

It’s a strange book, enamored of its principles, but it does very little to convince anyone who doesn’t think flogging, endless war, and martial law is the best path of humankind, not when its principals are so mechanical and its principles based on extremely broad assumptions about “what makes people behave”. I don’t know that I agreed with a word in it, beyond maybe incarceration being pretty terrible, and it’s doggedly unpersuasive stuff. But decently entertaining for all that.

Posted by Carole on 27 September 2015 at 15:53.

I've read Stranger in a Strange Land before, but my memory of it aside from it being full of sex and like ... weird, emotionally bankrupt polyamory? idk. -- is that it was less authoritarian in scope. It's the only other Heinlein I've read. I found the philosophy of Starship Troopers exasperatingly difficult to stomach. Some of it is probably a generational, product of its era thing; but speaking as someone who works professionally as a cog in the system of juvenile delinquency the book spends a lot of time decrying, my reaction is kind of just 'fuck you'. Hell, speaking as a dog owner. It is not appropriate to physically discipline your dog either, man. Hitting dogs isn't OK. Corporal punishment doesn't work. This stuff is backed up by actual science, and there's a lot more science in support of it now than there was when the book was published.

It's kind of a product of its sci fi era too where it's more about its philosophy than it is about the underlying story. I also found the gender issues occasionally distracting, although less so than in other books. Mostly I came away from it wanting more military sci-fi, less bullshit totally incorrect sociopolitical nonsense.

Posted by Sao (administrator) on 8 October 2015 at 04:32.

One interesting thing about reading Forever War -- I am not as good at writing things that look like actual reviews of things as Eit so I'm not really going to try, but in comparison to Starship Troopers it's interesting how much more story it feels like it has. Both of these books are of the school of scifi that is social commentary hung over a story framework, but there was more 'stuff' that 'happened' in FW. ST was almost like Rico's biopic on paper, strung through with a few adventures -- which were enjoyable, and the military culture that developed and was described was tonally fascinating and I wanted more of it, and I can see how it led to its progeny -- and FW, while structurally similar in terms of following a military career, just seemed designed to be more of a narrative and less of a lecture.

Still some lecture though. And the social politics of Forever War are weird. It starts off with a mixed service automatically leads to fucking like bunnies like all of the time, which is like, well, OK, this was the seventies, and everyone is always high. The attitude towards guns, sex and money is aggressively critical of features of culture that still exist and are probably worthy of critique, but it goes so glaringly over the top. Like, for example, heroin for sale in hypodermic needles at the bar, with a hit of something chemical at the same time to avoid the addictive properties of heroin? Like on the one I get it, but on the other hand, come on. And that's really just the beginning. Once we get to the homolife, I'm just kind of like. OK. What the fuck. Really? REALLY? and that just gets worse as it continues on, from the criminalization of heterosexuality ONWARDS to where we reach this point where at the end we can turn people gay or straight through the weird hivemind people, and it's amazing how progressive this is designed to be, right? Bi erasure on an intergalactic scale, but it was the 70s, people probably didn't know about bisexuality, right?

Didn't care about the love story particularly. I note this primarily in contrast with Old Man's War, where I do care about the love story.

Actually I will talk about that. I found rereading Old Man's War after reading ST and FW really fascinating. I feel like I can see the points of derivation, the kind of science fiction culture that I didn't really know about before that 'birthed' OMW as a book, and I feel like it made OMW texturally richer. I liked the book when I read it before, but it's less a high concept story and more a very human story in a weird, post-human universe -- not entirely unlike writing very human stories about anyone else with superpowers, actually. Almost like, hey, this is a military science fiction book for my scifi generation.

It also made me want to go reread early Miles Vorkosigan, so I might, when I get around to it. Quite a book queue going on though.

I finished OMW today, which is the third of the three, so now I'm done and can ramble on for paragraphs whenever everyone else is ready to go. HUZZAH.

Posted by Sao (administrator) on 8 October 2015 at 04:43.